Health & Medicine

Outbreak of rare disease in the Netherlands

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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Story by Emily Kopp, PRI's "The World"

The Netherlands is grappling with an outbreak of a rare disease which normally strikes farm animals, but has now infected hundreds of people who have no contact with farms. Most people who contract the illness come down with flu-like symptoms or pneumonia for a few weeks, but some are sick for months and a handful have died.

Truck driver Frank Van Lent lives in small town an hour southeast of Amsterdam. He used to play tennis and jog, but now a short stroll through his neighborhood is all he has energy for. His trouble began 10 months ago, when he developed a fever, headaches, muscle aches and heart palpitations. 

His doctor prescribed antibiotics, but those didn't help. After two months with no improvement, Van Lent returned for more tests and was diagnosed with Q-fever, a bacterial infection transmitted by livestock.  

"It's always been an occupational disease of farmers, slaughter house personnel and veterinarians," said Jos van de Sande, an infectious disease expert at the public health department in the Dutch province of Brabant.

But recently, many who have no connection to farms are coming down with Q-fever and the number of patients is growing. Three years ago the Netherlands had fewer than 200 cases. Last year, it had more than 2,000, and at least nine people have died. 

It's not clear why the disease is spreading. Jos van de Sande says the bacteria may have mutated. "And now Q-fever is spread by the wind, and the whole population can get it."

Whatever is causing the disease to spread, officials believe they know where it's coming from: the country's growing number of goat farms. 

The bacteria that causes Q-fever thrive in the wombs of pregnant goats, and cause the goats to miscarry. When the goats abort, the bacteria are released into the air and can infect people.

So to stop the disease, the Dutch government has targeted goat farms like Jeannette Van den Ven's.

"They just said pregnant goats give the most risk to contamination," she said. "Let's kill all the pregnant goats, contaminated or not. And that's very hard."

Under government orders, if any goat tests positive for Q-fever, all pregnant goats on that farm must be killed. Veterinarians were sent to euthanize more than 600 of Van den Ven's goats. 

Nationwide, about 45,000 pregnant goats have been killed. Farmers call these measures draconian and unnecessary, as an animal vaccine is available for Q-fever. While it was in short supply last year, there's now enough for all goats in the country. 

It's not clear, though, if any of these measures will stop the spread of Q-fever. Jos van de Sande of the Brabant public health department says there are simply too many farms squeezed into the crowded country. He pulls up a map on his computer, dotted with fat pink circles, clumped together like chicken pox. They indicate infected farms. 

"You see, not only humans, but other stables nearby can become infected very easily," he said. "The stables are so close together here in the Netherlands, that the disease can very likely spread from stable to stable."

One way to protect people from Q-fever would be to move farms away from cities, but experts say that's not practical. Meanwhile, other European countries are watching the situation closely, as the disease has spread to a few Belgian farms across the border.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."